My three thoughts ahead of the U.S.'s opening World Cup qualifier against Antigua and Barbuda in Tampa on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN, Galavision, ESPN3.com):
• Three points, goal-differential and cap-tying -- Those are the only things that really matter for the U.S. here. Anything other than a victory is not an option in a short six-game semifinal qualifying round when there's little margin for error, and while A&B deserves respect for getting this far, the U.S. enjoys a huge talent advantage. The Yanks also have plenty of incentive to score as many goals as possible, considering this is the first group game and goal-differential could be a tiebreaker down the road. If it turns out not to be a close game, look for coach Jurgen Klinsmann to use his subs wisely, which is to say by cap-tying dual nationals like Terrence Boyd and Joe Corona in an official game (read: non-friendly) so that they'll be U.S. players forever. (Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo are already tied to the U.S. since they had to file one-time official FIFA switches after competing for Germany and Mexico, respectively, in official youth competitions.)
• Whither Landon Donovan? -- It seemed as though Donovan had turned a corner with his hat-trick performance against Scotland, rediscovering some of the fire that had been absent in recent months (and which Donovan himself had questioned in an interview before that game). But the U.S.' all-time leading scorer was extremely subdued in the last two games, providing little of the spark that we had seen against Scotland. You could partially explain that away against Brazil, since Real Madrid's Marcelo played a blinder at both ends against Donovan, but his no-show against a less-than-fearsome Canada outfit on Sunday was cause for concern. Other U.S. players needed to be better as well, but Donovan is a tone-setter on this team, and everyone knows it. Perhaps the incentive of scoring his 50th international goal will bring out the tiger in Donovan again on Friday.
• Which U.S. players will get the start? -- Klinsmann has some decisions to make for his starting lineup. Who will be the U.S.'s center forward? Hérculez Gómez has started the last two games, performing better against Brazil than against Canada, but Jozy Altidore should be rounding into full fitness after joining the camp later than his teammates. Who gets the nod on the back line? Left backs Fabian Johnson (strained calf) and Edgar Castillo (hamstring injury) aren't expected to be available, which could cause Carlos Bocanegra to move from center back to left back and open up the center for Clarence Goodson and Oguchi Onyewu. And is there room for José Torres in the lineup if both Clint Dempsey and Donovan start? Torres, like Donovan, has done little in the last two games after a terrific performance against Scotland. But would the U.S. be better off with the full triumvirate of Maurice Edu, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in the central midfield? Edu was sacrificed for Torres in the lineup vs. Canada. What call does Klinsmann make here?
• My predicted U.S. lineup: Tim Howard; Steve Cherundolo, Clarence Goodson, Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra; Maurice Edu; Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley; Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey; Jozy Altidore.